When we talk about influential people throughout history I am always surprised at how the narrative around these people seems to solidify over time. It seems like everyone would agree that Hitler is bad and Gandhi was good.
I hate these overly simplistic judgments. We all seem to want these clear, easy-to-understand characteristics of people. But people are complex and it isn’t that simple.
If I asked you if Henry Ford was good or bad what would your response be? What comes to mind when you hear about Ford? If you are an engineering or business management student learning about Ford what are the core elements that you are taught?
Most people have a favorable view of Henry Ford. All of the business writings on him that document how great he was as a business man overshadow other areas of his life that may contradict that rosy opinion of him.
If you look at Ford’s link to Hitler and his views of bigotry, you might get a different picture. This isn’t to say that his business work was insignificant. It is simply to show that there is always more to a system, whether that system is a person, a business, a routine or even a religion.
There is an old story about an elephant being brought to a remote village for the first time. They decide to take various village elders into a tent to feel the elephant.
The first elder goes in and feels the side of the huge animal. He comes out and proclaims that the elephant is a great wall with rough skin.
The second elder goes in and feels the tail. He comes out and tells everyone that the first elder was completely wrong. He says it isn’t like a wall in any way, but rather it is like a snake.
The third elder goes in and decides to settle it once and for all. As he approaches the beast he grabs the front leg. He comes out and says both of the first 2 elders were wrong, an elephant is an animal that resembles the trunk of a tree.
They continue to bring in people from the village - one feels the elephant’s ears, the other its trunk, one grabs a tusk.
Each person is only seeing a very small part of the full system. Yet they make the decision to use what they know and form a larger judgment based on those knowns.
But each one is right and wrong at the same time. None are perfect and none truly understand an elephant. But if they start to put all of these opinions together they will get a much better understanding of what an elephant really is.
So it isn’t as simple as forming a consensus opinion and that becoming fact. That is still an opinion, even if it formed over time with hundreds of people contributing to a narrative about that person (or system).
One perspective on numerous opinions is that we have to learn to ignore others’ opinions. But that would be like ignoring everyone else who got to feel the elephant. That doesn’t give us a clearer picture; it just filters out what we don’t want to hear.
When we get feedback from others about us, what do we do? If it contradicts our own self-image do we ignore their opinion? Do we take it as truth and suddenly have an identity crisis?
Everyone finds himself or herself here at some point in life. The key is that we have to understand that this is just another piece of the puzzle. It doesn’t completely contradict our self-image, but it also isn’t meaningless because we don’t like what is being said.
Instead, we should start to realize that judgments are always right and always wrong. So instead of getting caught up in trying to gain an overall view of ourselves (or the system) we should instead add that into the pot and realize that the system is ALL of it, not just the parts we choose to focus on.